Colette in Pieces

Letters from Colette

selected and translated by Robert Phelps
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 214 pp., $12.95

In 1923, Colette’s second husband, Henry de Jouvenel, left her for another woman. She writes to a friend, Mme. Georges Wague, to whom the same thing has recently happened:

But, my child, haven’t you heard the gossip? We’re in the same boat. If it is true that happiness is only relative, then think of yourself as happy, in comparison to me… You don’t have a child, which is a pity—or work to absorb you. But come and see me, not at Le Matin, though, and not before next week. Telephone me Tuesday or Wednesday morning. And, above all, arrange to move, to get out of the house where you’ve been tormented. Find another nest. I know that’s hard, but find one all the same, and at once. I am sure I am giving you good advice….

As for me, I’ve been alone for a month. He left without a word while I was on a lecture tour. I am divorcing.

This gives an impression of a highspirited and independent woman encouraging similar proud high spirits in her friend. But the translator has omitted a few sentences, from this letter as from almost all the other letters in this collection. The first paragraph above goes on: “When he misses you, even if only for an instant in the course of a month, you score a point. Otherwise everything is against you.” (“Quand tu lui auras manqué, fut-ce un moment dans l’espace d’un mois, tu auras marqué un point. Hors cela, tout est contre toi.”) What seems to be a counsel of pride is instead a counsel of policy, a very different matter.

Robert Phelps explains in his preface that he has followed his “own taste, trimming freely and trying simply to show Colette in her daily zest…. Letters and memoirs to come will certainly deepen the image this book makes, but it is unlikely that they will radically alter it.” His taste leads him to emphasize a zestful, simple Colette and to ignore the more prudent, calculating, and interesting woman who emerges from the complete texts of her letters. It is of course the defect of all collections of trimmings that the idea of the editor about the writer controls our understanding of his subject, the more particularly in cases of translated letters, which have the usual problems of translations in addition, among them that we are far less likely to go ourselves to the originals to see what is missing. Mr. Phelps, the editor and translator of Earthly Paradise, a compendium of Colette’s autobiographical writings, and of Les Belles Saisons, a picture book, has had considerable influence on our view of Colette.

Phelps’s note specifies his view of Colette, “a sort of twentieth-century earth goddess who lived most of her life in Paris, watching the world around her so attentively that she was able to describe how a single rose petal sounds when it falls.” For him she …

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